The Greatest Superman Story Ever Told

Superman has been with us for more that 80 years at this point. He’s become an icon, he was the flash-point for the success of an entire industry and he set the standard and the style for the myriad of costumed super heroes who would come after him. He’s been the subject of a myriad of incredible and memorable stories during that time. But if you were to ask me what my very favorite Superman story was, at least some of the time I would point to this very early tale, one published at the tail end of the character’s first year in print. Superman, it turns out, peaked early.

This story saw print in the pages of ACTION COMICS #12, and was produced by the Man of Steels creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, with some help from Shuster’s first assistant, Paul Cassidy. While he would go on to battle mad scientists and crazed dictators and colorful super-villains and monsters, in the earliest days of the series, the character was very much devoted to social justice, to righting the wrongs of society by using his incredible power to cut through the red tape of society. Superman got things done! There also wasn’t much yet that could even slow him down, let alone stop him–so the fun in these early stories was in watching an invulnerable figure smash through a problem with the ease of a knife cutting through butter. Those problems tended to be relatable to the audience in a very direct fashion, so Superman functioned as something of a folk hero.

He’s also, it must be said, an absolute madman. While he uses his power to do what’s right, it really would only take a slight course correction to the right or the left to make him into a figure of menace, of evil. And this story comes about as close as it’s possible to doing that while still maintaining some sympathy. Having seen an acquaintance of his run down in the street, Clark Kent wonders why the city (not yet Metropolis) doesn’t do something about reckless driving. As Superman, he decides to take a hand and solve the problem. A pretty tall order, as reckless driving isn’t something you can really punch out directly. But that doesn’t daunt the Man of Tomorrow.

Being Superman, his first move is to break into a nearby radio station and broadcast his intentions to the people: Superman is declaring war on reckless drivers! Henceforth, homicidal drivers will answer to him! This is all right, though, because despite the fact that he possesses no authority and is acting entirely on his own accord, Superman can be trusted to do the right thing, right? Now, this doesn’t stop him from smashing his way in through a window on arriving at the radio station–or in demolishing a wall on his way out. Superman apparently doesn’t feel the same way about reckless endangerment. But, hey, one problem at a time.

His next move is direct vigilante justice, as he goes to a nearby impound lot and demolishes all of the cars. Get a ticket, Superman smashes your car–seems reasonable. And he doesn’t stop there. He goes around to the used auto lots and destroys all of the dealers’ cars, too, pronouncing them unsafe. “Sorry if this is tough on your pocketbook” indeed!

One has to wonder if Siegel had been inspired to write this story by some instance in real life, where he was perhaps almost struck by a car or something. The glee with which Superman carries out his obliteration of the vehicles and the terror of the bystanders is palpable. It all feels like revenge for something.

Here, Superman snatches up the vehicle driven by a drunk driver and takes him on a scared straight joyride. One has to wonder how many of the drivers of the cars that Superman hurtles while carrying this vehicle went out of control and crashed as a result of fear and panic–to say nothing of how many heart attacks there must have been.

Now this is a wonderfully ridiculous sequence. Despite the fact that he’s standing around in a blue costume with a streaming red cape, Superman is accidentally run down by a hit-and-run driver. Of course, this doesn’t harm him in the slightest–but rather than demolishing the vehicle or throwing it into the river like he almost did with the last guy’s car, Superman instead changes things up, overtaking the vehicle, jumping in the back seat and pretending to be the avenging spirit of the guy they just ran over. Who says Superman doesn’t have a sense of humor?

Superman is having such fun at this point that he heads over to the factory of the auto manufacturer whose cars are the most often involved in accidents. Not at all accounting for the drivers of said vehicles, Superman decides that he’s going to put the place out of business, by destroying the entire factory. Now, presumably the line workers who toil there are just trying to earn an honest day’s wage–but Superman gives them no more thought than he does the drivers of said cars.

I love this bit. Love it. Siegel plays it for humor, but viewed slightly differently, it’s horrifying. Convinced that his message hasn’t yet taken hold–and really, how long has it even been since he made his original proclamation? –Superman returns to the radio station to make certain that the citizenry gets his message. And he’s in such a hurry that he comes barreling in through the same wall that has just finished being repaired! Oh, what a card, that Superman! He also beats the hell out of the announcer at the microphone simply because he wants a crack at it. Get your shit together, pre-Metropolis!

Now, this is actually a reasonable course to take. Locating a dangerous curve, Superman paves himself a straight line alternate route through the side of a mountain.

But Siegel is running out of pages, so it’s time to land this bird. The Mayor, outraged that the entirety of his police force can’t stop Superman from going where he wants and destroying what he wants, makes the foolish mistake of driving home himself in his own sporty car. Bad move–because Superman shows up as you might have predicted he would, forcing his way into the passenger seat and stomping down on the gas.

Here, Superman takes the Mayor to see the results of his negligent in enforcing road safety. Of course, in doing so, he leaves the Mayor’s runaway car traveling at high speed down that roadway. No bastion of consistency, is Superman.

With the Mayor’s pledge to crack down on reckless drivers, Superman figures enough is enough and returns to his Clark Kent identity–and swiftly gets a ticket for parking illegally. Which raises the immediate question: given that (and his predilections throughout the rest of the is story) just how safe of a driver is Superman? I mean, if Clark Kent is in a horrible automobile accident, it’s not as if he’s not going to walk away unscathed,

For all that I kid about this adventure, I do genuinely love it. And you can see the appeal of the early Superman very clearly here. Who among us hasn’t been frustrated by some situation in our daily lives and wished that we could just break things until the circumstances were resolved? In an era in which people were having to stretch to make ends meet and feeling powerless, Superman was cathartic. That said, the simplicity of his zeal is completely off-putting if you think about it for even five seconds, and today, the modern day Man of Steel would run to ground anybody that was racing around the city smashing up automobiles and radio stations in this manner.

6 thoughts on “The Greatest Superman Story Ever Told

  1. >> One has to wonder if Siegel had been inspired to write this story by some instance in real life >>

    At the time, Cleveland was leading the nation in traffic fatalities (or something along those lines), and there was a widespread perception that the city government was lax in enforcing traffic laws. This story is Siegel reacting to what was going on around him, with Superman as the wish-fulfillment figure who can beat the crap out of everyone contributing to the problem until they see the error of their ways.

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  2. Something along the lines of this old Superman’s personality would make a great addition to the modern Superman rogues gallery. Basically, a Bizarro with a fixation on “solving” social problems. It would work well if the character was strong enough to put Superman out of action for a while, so then engage in this sort mischief for several pages before Superman comes back to defeat him. Imagine if original Captain Marvel didn’t have “the wisdom of Solomon” but more at the reverse (can’t think of an appropriate legendary figure, some sort of bullheaded crusading without regard to any further consequences).

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  3. Jerry Siegel later scripted many Donald Duck’s stories, especially in Italy, and they mostly have tis feel!! I totally dig Donald behaving like this having superpowers (with less luck, probably).

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  4. Wow! Just read this for the first time. I’d read about early Superman stories being quite different but hadn’t actually seen much other than the origin and bits of others, but nothing comparable to this! Seems Siegel & Schuster were letting loose their id in this story, having Superman go on a destructive warpath to drive home points about careless drivers, shoddy car manufacturers, corrupt policemen and political office-holders who didn’t care about the welfare of the people they were supposed to represent.
    And all at a time in the National output when there were no other comparable superheroes. I noticed the ad for the “new” Batman series, the Beta to Supes’ alpha of comicbook superheroes, but Bats would have been hard-pressed to deal with a Supes gone bonkers, although I can imagine Bruce Wayne sitting in his stately manor reading in the papers about Superman going on an anti-bad driving rampage in Metropolis and thinking, “what if he really did go bad? What would it take to bring him down?” A bit sad that the modern DC world history has been rewritten so that Clark and Bruce are now johnny-come-latelies in donning costumes and fighting crime and injustice rather than the original standard bearers. But can’t have them both be well past a century old, even if both were just 20 back in 1939.
    This story also reminded me a bit of the first FF story, with all the damage Ben and Johnny cause just making their way to meet with Reed and Sue, who herself causes minor mayhem on her way there.

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